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Hemp 102: 1911-1940 How prejudice, bigotry, misinformation and one man’s quest for power caused marijuana to become illegal


In Hemp 102, we discuss how the use of marijuana was outlawed as a means of attacking the Hispanic and black communities, how the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, and billionaire newspaper baron and yellow journalist, William Randolph Hearst, disseminated false and prejudicial information about marijuana to successfully increase their own power and sell newspapers, and how truthful information was withheld from Congress leading to passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 bringing an end to American research into the medical properties of cannabis.

Marijuana was made illegal because of racial prejudice, not scientific fact.

Mexican soldiers were reportedly smoking marijuana in 1874.  Marijuana was widely introduced into America during the Mexican Revolution in 1910.  There had been a series of rigged elections that kept General Parfirio Diaz Mexico's president for 35 years.  Diaz had exploited and repressed the Mexican farmers and peasants so he could assure rich foreigners their Mexican investments were safe.  After Diaz was 80 years old, he once again ran for President, and the Mexican peasants revolted.

Mexican peasants line up with their stolen weapons to do battle with General Diaz's soldiers at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.

Between 1910 and 1920, almost 900,000 Mexicans legally immigrated into the United States to escape the carnage of the Mexican Revolution.  Many of these Mexicans were hired to work on large farms in California, and they enjoyed smoking marijuana after work.  The small California farmers blamed the use of cheap Mexican labor for putting them at an economic disadvantage, and this blame turned into hate, hate into bigotry, and bigotry into retaliation.  The small farmers began describing the Mexican immigrants' use of marijuana as an inherent evil hoping to cause widespread prejudice forcing them to return to Mexico.

In addition, California saw an influx of Hindoos from East India who practiced the Sikh religion and who also smoked marijuana.  The people most likely to discriminate against the Hindoos were the Chinese, who having suffered a great deal of prejudice themselves, finally had someone to look down on.

The small California farmers banded together, and with whatever Chinese they could recruit, lobbied their state legislature, and in 1913, California became the first state to outlaw “preparations of hemp, or loco weed” by amending the California Poison and Pharmacy Act of 1907 making possession of “extracts, tinctures, or other narcotic preparations of hemp, or loco-weed, their preparations and compounds” a misdemeanor.

In 1913, a revision of the United States Poison Act classified cannabis under the same restrictions as other poisons, meaning cannabis extracts needed to be prescribed by a doctor and supplied through a pharmacist.  cont.

Many whites in the City of El Paso, Texas, were prejudiced against Mexican immigrants due to their increasing numbers along the border, and El Paso outlawed cannabis in 1915 initiating the deportation of hundreds of Mexican immigrants.  In both instances, anti-cannabis legislation in the West was based on racism rather than scientific reason and was designed to make life difficult for the Mexican and Indian minorities.

The United States was ripe for racism in the 1920's.  In election years, more than 50,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan would march on Washington, D.C.  Additional Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation and suppressing the black vote were passed, and Southern lynchings reached their peak.  Many members of the Klan claimed they were fundamental Christians who opposed all recreational drugs including alcohol.

In the 1920's, more than 50,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched through Washington, D.C. during election year rallies.

The prejudice was not limited to Southern states.  In the East, the racism was against blacks who when smoking marijuana were said to have forgotten their place in society.  In the Mid-West, one of the nations strongest and most prolific bastions of the Ku Klux Klan was Indiana where voters in 1924 elected as their Governor Edward L. Jackson who was a member of the Klan.

Edward L. Jackson, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was elected Governor of Indiana from 1925 to 1929.  At the time, about half of Indian's public officials were members of the Klan.

On October 29, 1929, the stock market crash marked the beginning of the Great Depression, and high unemployment spurred greater prejudice against Mexicans who immigrated into the Southwest from Mexico and blacks who immigrated into Northern states from the South.  Into this racist frenzy stepped the two men primarily responsible for marijuana being made illegal in America, Harry J. Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst.

In 1932, Harry J. Anslinger, a self-righteous, law-and-order, hypocritical evangelist, was appointed first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics by his uncle, Andrew Mellon, who was Secretary of the Treasury under President Herbert Hoover.  Anslinger remained Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics until he retired in 1962 at age 70.  Anslinger was beset on increasing his power and the size of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.  Making cannabis illegal was one means Anslinger used to achieve that end.


Harry J. Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was a notorious racist who greatly exaggerated the dangers of marijuana as a means of increasing his own power.

At first Anslinger found nothing wrong with marijuana and said cannabis was “no problem,” caused “no harm,” and when responding to reports cannabis caused people to become violent, Anslinger said,“there is no more absurd fallacy.”  Later, after Anslinger sought to increase his power and influence following his appointment as Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, he began touring the states spreading an anti-marijuana message laced with deceit.  Anslinger claimed marijuana caused temporary insanity, and he preached marijuana caused white woman to engage in interracial relationships.  Anslinger lobbied each state to pass without amendment the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act and, as a result, about 35 states passed the legislation without amendment.

Before Anslinger was appointed Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, one of the later drafts of the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act authored by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws removed cannabis from being defined as a “habit forming drug."  After Anslinger was appointed Commissioner and began espousing his biased, unscientific, racist disinformation, the fifth and final draft of the State Narcotic Drug Act added cannabis to the category of “narcotic drugs” alongside opiates and cocaine.  By the time the fifth draft was completed, no one challenged the list of prohibited substances even though no scientific study supported classifying marijuana a habit forming drug.  cont.

Simply having states adopt the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act was insufficient reward for Anslinger who saw his importance and influence diminish after prohibition ended in 1933 with passage of the Twenty-First Amendment.  As problems associated with opium, morphine, and heroin addictions remained fairly insignificant, Anslinger turned his attention to crusading against marijuana seeking to have it banned on a national level in order to maintain his power and expand the size and budget of the Bureau he controlled.

Anslinger adopted the word “marijuana,” who many people did not know actually meant “cannabis,” to add a Mexican component, except he spelled the word as if it were of English origin with the use of an “h” for the “j” and misspelling marijuana as “marihuana,” as its spelling appears in the “1937 Marihuana Tax Act and some other federal publications.

Anslinger tried to convince people the word “marihuana” had its origins with the word “mallihuan,” the Aztec word for “prisoner,” because it fit well with his narrative marijuana enslaved its user but, in actuality, the origin of the word marijuana remains unknown.  cont.

Meanwhile, Anslinger, acted upon his three favorite prejudices:  his hatred of jazz music and the black musicians who played it, his fear of interracial relationships, and his revulsion at the idea blacks could think themselves equal to whites.  Anslinger felt the primary reason for outlawing marijuana was because of its effect “on the degenerate races,” and he is further quoted as saying, “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers.  Their satanic music is driven by marihuana, and marihuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others.  It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death – the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”  To use Anslinger’s words, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men . . . the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races” and “you smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”

Anslinger was quick to point out several jazz musicians sang songs that included references to marijuana like “That Funny Reefer Man,” and “Viper’s Drag.”  The Jazz hit “Muggles,” named after an old slang term for marijuana, was sung by one of American’s greatest artists and ambassador to the world, Louie Armstrong, who became one of Anslinger’s criminal targets although not nearly to the extent as did Billie Holiday.

America's greatest jazz singer, Billie Holiday, became one of Anslinger's targets.  Holiday suffered from heroin addiction and died on July 17, 1959, from alcohol-and drug-related complications.  Last year, 71,000 Americans died from opioid addiction after 46 years of an unsuccessful War on Drugs.  States that have legalized medical marijuana have seen a decrease in opioid deaths.

The second anti-marijuana crusader was famous yellow journalist, multi-billionaire William Randolph Hearst.  Hearst was the greatest newspaper baron of all time and, if it suited his purposes, would publish unchecked, forged documents.  At the peak of his power, Hearst controlled 20 daily and 11 Sunday newspapers with a total circulation of over 5.5 million.  One in every four Americans read a Hearst newspaper.  Hearst also published a Sunday supplement and six magazines.  By 1937, Hearst’s influence had faded but not before he had thoroughly succeeded in defaming all Mexicans and, especially, blacks, by blaming their smoking marijuana for a series of false and exaggerated criminal and degenerate acts.

William Randolph Hearst, the character who inspired Orson Wells' movie Citizen Kane, was a notorious racist whose newspapers editorialized, “Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.”

Hearst's hatred of Mexicans had its beginnings in 1889 after future Mexican Revolutionary War General Pancho Villa and his marijuana-smoking, rag-tag, fugitive band of bandits expropriated 800,000 acres of valuable timberland Hearst owned in Chihuahua, Mexico, and turned it over to the Mexican peasants.

Hearst is often credited with having talked America into the 1898 Spanish-American War.  Hearst was always looking for an excuse to slander minority races with exaggerated stories designed to increase newspaper sales and feed upon the public’s irrational, racist fears.  Hearst conjured up sensationalized, headline-grabbing stories by railing against marijuana and the dastardly crimes he said it caused.

Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner wrote in an editorial, “Marihuana makes fiends of boys in thirty days – Hashish goads users to bloodlust,” and “Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him. . .”

Hearst’s newspapers often referred to Victor Licata, a mulatto who Hearst and Anslinger claimed murdered his family with an ax when they were asleep because he was under the influence of marijuana.  Licata actually suffered from severe mental illness.

There are two economic conspiracy theories that help explain Anslinger's and Hearst's slander of cannabis.  The first is Anslinger’s Uncle Andrew Mellon, said to be the richest man in America at the time, was invested heavily in E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company which invented nylon in 1935.  Even though DuPont was primarily experimenting with nylon for making fine thread for women’s hosiery, there existed the possibility the strong and water resistant fiber could be made into nylon rope placing it in direct competition with hemp as later became the case.  As for Hearst, he owned a lot of forest land to produce the trees he needed to make the newsprint upon which to print his newspapers.  Although hemp paper was too course to be made into newsprint, there existed the possibility hemp newsprint could ultimately be perfected and compete with newsprint made from wood pulp.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

Because a constitutional amendment was passed to ban alcohol, there was a legal dispute over whether marijuana could be outlawed without a constitutional amendment, so Anslinger came up with the idea of leveling a tax on marijuana with stiff penalties for non-compliance.  In preparation for making such an argument, Anslinger asked police officers to submit to his “gore file” their most gruesome stories when the crime could be blamed on marijuana, even if marijuana use had nothing to do with the commission of the crime.  Anslinger also solicited medical opinions from 30 doctors and experts in the field, but when only one doctor, J. Bouquet, a hospital pharmacist, offered the only opinion with which Anslinger agreed, Bouquet's was the only testimony Anslinger submitted to the House Ways and Means Committee whose members were at the time considering the Marihuana Tax Act.  To avoid Bouquet needing to be subjected to the Committee’s examination, Anslinger submitted Bouquet’s testimony in the form of written answers to interrogatories.  cont.

In answer to the question, “Do any preparations of Indian hemp exist possessing a therapeutic value such that nothing else can take their place for medical purposes?” Bouquet wrote, “No” and went on to say that only in “a few rare cases” did Indian hemp give “good results” which results were “not superior to other medicaments which can be used in therapeutics for the treatment of the same affliction” and that “Indian hemp, like many other medicaments, has enjoyed for a time a vogue which is not justified by the results obtained” and “therapeutics would not lose much if [marihuana] were removed from the list of medicaments.”

Previously, another medical professional, Dr. A.E.Fossier, had written in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, “Under the influence of hashish those fanatics would madly rush at their enemies, and ruthlessly massacre every one within their grasp,” but Fossier's article was merely quoting from an another article Anslinger had written referencing the opium trade and speaking of the conquests of Marco Polo whose alleged “hasheesh-eaters” were fierce fighters.  Anslinger repeatedly claimed the word “assassins” originated with the words “hasheesh-eaters,” when, in fact, the word “assassins” had its origin in describing the Nizari Ismailis sect that split from Shia Islam in the 11th century.

In 1937, Dr. William C. Woodward correctly represented the position of the American Medical Association that future investigation may show there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.

Dr. William C. Woodward of the Legislative Council of the American Medical Association had previously spoken out against Anslinger’s distortion of earlier AMA statements which Anslinger twisted to make it appear the AMA supported the Federal Bureau of Narcotic’s official position.  Woodward objected to cannabis being called marihuana in the legislation because the term marihuana was unknown to many of the legislators and, further, Woodward pointed out after the fact, that since he was neither invited to attend nor notified of the congressional hearing, “the facts on which these statements [about cannabis] have been based have not been brought before this committee by competent primary evidence.

The “evidence” Anslinger had brought with him to the House Ways and Means Committee only consisted of a scrapbook filled with Hearst’s newspaper articles, his police “gore” file wrongfully attributing a variety of heinous crimes to marijuana usage, Bouquet’s written answers to interrogatories, and Fossier’s article parroting Anslinger’s prior propaganda.   Anslinger also allowed one of the Committee members to intentionally mislead other Committee members by claiming he had spoken with Dr. Woodward, and the American Medical Association supported passage of the Marihuana Tax Act “100 percent,” which was a blatant lie.  cont.

Having heard of the misrepresentation, the next day upon his own invitation, Dr. Woodward attended the House Ways and Means Committee and corrected the misstatement, but few congressmen attended the second session, and his speech otherwise fell on deaf ears.

Dr. Woodward told the remaining Committee members:

“. . . my name is Dr. William C. Woodward, representing the American Medical Association . . . .  I had no knowledge that such a bill as this was proposed until after it had been introduced.  . . . [T]he American Medical Association is apparently quoted as being in favor of legislation of this character. . . . in an editorial . . . the Washington Herald quoted the Journal of the American Medical Association in part, as ‘The problems of greatest menace in the United States seem to be the rise in the use of Indian hemp (marihuana) with inadequate control laws.’

“. . . that editorial [cites from an] editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association [and does] not correctly represent the views of the Association.  The Herald is not discussing marihuana alone, but is discussing the narcotic invasion of America. . . . The quotation has reference to the seeming situation that results from the statement of [Anslinger] and not from any evidence that is in possession of the American Medical Association. . . . There is nothing in the medicinal use of cannabis that has any relation to cannabis addiction.  I use the word "cannabis" in preference to the word "marihuana", because cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products.  The term "marihuana" is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning, except as it relates to the use of cannabis preparations for smoking.  It is not recognized in medicine, and I might say that it is hardly recognized even in the Treasury Department. . . . In other words, marihuana is not the correct term.  It was the use of the term "marihuana" rather than the use of the term "cannabis" or the use of the term "Indian hemp" that was responsible, as you realized, probably, a day or two ago, for the failure of the dealers in Indian hemp seed to connect up this bill with their business until rather late in the day. . . . To say . . . as has been proposed here, that the use of the drug should be prevented by a prohibitive tax, loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis. . . . It has surprised me . . . that the facts on which these [derogatory] statements [about cannabis] have been based have not been brought before this committee by competent primary evidence. . . . no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marihuana habit.  An informed inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point.  You have been told that school children are great users of marihuana cigarettes.  No one has been summoned from the Children's Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit among children.  Inquiry of the Children's Bureau shows that they have had no occasion to investigate it and know nothing particularly of it.  Inquiry of the Office of Education . . . indicates that they have had no occasion to investigate and know nothing of it. . . . It has only been very recently, apparently, that there has been any discovery by the Federal Government of the supposed fact that Federal legislation rather than State legislation is desirable.”  See, emphasis addedcont.

Dr. Woodward correctly believed further research into the medical attributes of cannabis would be stifled by the national tax.  The national marijuana tax was not designed to raise revenue.  It was designed to end the trade in cannabis.  Importers, manufacturers, and compounders of marijuana were only required to pay a yearly tax of $24 per year.  However, selling any marijuana to a person who had not also paid the yearly tax would result in a tax of $100 per ounce of marijuana, $1,725 in today’s dollars, and detailed sales logs needed to be constantly maintained.  Notorious “Regulation No. 1" propagated under the Marihuana Tax Act allowed for constant inspection by the Treasury Department of any transaction, and to comply with the Act, one needed to circumvent a bewildering tangle of regulations requiring the taking of depositions and the filing of affidavits and sworn statements.  Any person convicted of a single violation of the Marihuana Tax Act could be fined $2,000 ($34,500 in today’s dollars) and imprisoned for five years.  As a result, doctors, physicians, and scientists feared to further experiment with cannabis medical preparations.

Examples of tax stamps one could purchase to comply with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

Prior to passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, Anslinger’s Bureau of Narcotics played a role promoting the 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness, which depicted marijuana as a means by which all reason was lost and sinister men seduced innocent women.  This movie also had its effect on members of the House Ways and Means Committee who chose to ignore Dr. Woodward and, instead, follow Anslinger’s lead.  The picture of the poster below paints “Reefer Madness” as the pornography of its day.

The movie "Reefer Madness" was the soft-core pornography of its day.  Other films which attempted to capitalize on marijuana being a drug of seduction were “Devil’s Harvest” (1942) and “The Burning Question” (1943).

In a Reefer Madness trailer, the audience is warned, “In this startling film you will see dopesters lure children into destruction. . . . you will meet Phil, who once took pride in his strong will, as he takes the first step toward enslavement. . . . smoking the sole-destroying reefer, they find a moment’s pleasure, but at a terrible price, debauchery, violence, murder, suicide . . . and the ultimate end of the marijuana addict, hopeless insanity. . . . See this film now, before it is too late!”  Reefer Madness is now considered a cult classic because of its exaggerated scenes, but Anslinger promoted Reefer Madness as a truthful warning of what was to come if marijuana was not regulated.

An opponent of the Marihuana Tax Act was New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who later assembled the LaGuardia Commission.  In 1944, the LaGuardia Commission found untrue earlier reports of marijuana addiction, madness, and overt sexuality.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was always illegal.  It was fraudulently passed in reliance on perjurious testimony Anslinger presented to the House Ways and Means Committee.  It required someone who could be violating state laws related to possession of marijuana to declare their possession of marijuana to the federal government upon entering the United States thereby incriminating themselves and subjecting themselves to prosecution in the state they were entering, but it wasn’t until May 19, 1969, when the case of Leary v. United States, 395 U.S. 6, 89 S.Ct 1532, 23 L.Ed. 57 (1969), was decided, that a unanimous United States Supreme Court found the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 violated a person's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively brought an end to the growing of industrial hemp despite it having a THC level too low to produce a euphoric high. Then came World War II and the cutting off by the Japanese navy America’s supply of a strong, natural fiber from which rope could be made.  That’s where Hemp 103 begins and explores the evolution of America’s cannabis laws up to the present day.

In Hemp 103 we discuss how hemp farming made a comeback during World War II, but how prejudice, misinformation, and the failure of our politicians to follow the advice of expert panels led to most of the cannabis plant being classified a Schedule I drug (click here).


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